44*. POOR THINGS (2023)

“Nature gives children great emotional resilience to help them survive the oppressions of being small, but these oppressions still make them into slightly insane adults, either mad to seize all the power they once lacked or (more usually) mad to avoid it.”― Alasdair Gray, Poor Things

DIRECTED BY: Yorgos Lanthimos

FEATURING: Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe, Ramy Youssef

PLOT: When a pregnant woman throws herself off a bridge, scientist Godwin Baxter spots an opportunity to conduct an unprecedented science experiment by transplanting the fetal brain into her mother’s body. The result is Bella, a woman with a grown-up physique and an infantile mind, who develops at a rapid rate and soon discovers many adult pleasures not otherwise accessible to an impressionable youth. Speaking with a frankness about herself and others that flies in the face of standards for propriety, she leaves home to explore the world, first in the company of caddish attorney Duncan Wedderburn and later as an employee in a Parisian bordello, returning  home  to discover that a figure from her past has located her.

Still from poor things (2023)


INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bella’s very raison d’etre is to explore the world on her terms, following her bliss and flagrantly disregarding social niceties. Nothing better expresses this impulse than her spin on the dance floor, staggering about in full thrall to the music, limbs flung in every direction, and doing so with such verve and joy that even Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan is compelled to join in.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble burps; “I have to go punch that baby”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A spectacular blend of quirky plot, offbeat setting, and demented execution, Poor Things is joyously inappropriate. In a film where virtually nobody behaves according to convention, the heroine is someone who casts aside any semblance of decorum in favor of a life lived as she chooses. The result is an unexpected blend of Frankenstein, Big, Candide, and The Opening of Misty Beethoven.

Official trailer for Poor Things

COMMENTS: The most dreaded phase for parents rearing a child is the arrival of “Why?” The fresh, eager, and impressionable mind is hungry for understanding, and the introduction of rules, procedures, and codes of behavior puts many a child at a decision point between compliance and rebellion. Most children want to be obedient, but a good reason would sure help explain why not to just pursue the thing that they want to do.

Bella Baxter is too big to be intimidated, and too curious to be shamed into a Victorian notion of decorousness. She is utterly without inhibition, having been raised by a scientist (dubbed “God,” both an abbreviation of “Godwin” and a description of his role in her life), who himself has been trained to accept everything as potentially interesting data. (He permits her to play with a scalpel in the lab, but only on the corpses he has collected there.) She approaches the world in the manner of a bloodhound sniffing out clues, or an alien visitor eagerly seeking new data. For the record, every orifice is fair game for input, and when her self-exploration suddenly results in extraordinary pleasure, there will be nothing to hold her back. As she asks with some exasperation, “Why would anyone do anything else?”

It’s not hard to understand why Bella has such lust for life. The world in Poor Things is spectacular. From her beginnings in God’s London townhouse/mad scientist’s laboratory that would be the envy of both Victor Frankenstein and Henry Higgins, Bella embarks on a journey through a colorful, otherworldly Europe that is at once cartoonishly fantastical and richly tactile, like a steampunk Epcot. The film’s Lisbon feels like a Lego town square made manifest, Alexandria is Dante’s levels of hell as designed by M. C. Escher, and Paris is a compact, diamond-dusted curlicue of a city. She travels on a cruise ship with a starfaring silhouette and an interior borrowed from the Bradbury Building. And she meets the world with a wardrobe that seems to have been designed on a set of Fashion Plates that combine Lady Duff-Gordon with 1980s teen-girl couture. The film switches from black-and-white to color when Bella discovers the joys of sex, but it’s equally true that the world becomes more visually outrageous as she begins to venture out.

The cast is uniformly good, and in its most pivotal roles, the performers achieve true greatness. Dafoe turns in one of his sweetest performances despite the fact that many of his actions are positively monstrous. He’s an outlandish version of the father who puts his children through hell because hardship built his character, and he can’t imagine why it wouldn’t work for everyone else. Meanwhile, Ruffalo is fascinating, doing work completely unlike anything else on his résumé. It’s fair to argue that he’s wildly miscast as a venal, lascivious scoundrel, but his inappropriateness for the role only heightens his impact. His journey from an amoral spendthrift who can hardly believe his luck at finding someone willing to believe his claims of superior sexual prowess to a petty, vengeance-seeking rodent is riotous.

Towering over everything is the monumental performance by Stone. Her eyebrows alone convey wonder and a hint of menace. She throws her body around like a newborn foal, gawky and out of sync with her racing brain. Her language is spectacular, pairing a child’s need to label with a deep intelligence; her description of sex as “furious jumping” is the best example. And she literally exposes her body to a degree almost unmatched by an actor of her stature. It’s almost clichéd to call her work “brave,” particularly in light of the extremely high level of sexuality she embodies. (Roget’s choice for the best word to describe the amount of Stone’s nudity and sexual situations in Poor Things: “copious.”) But sex is just one facet of the unusual and fascinating character Stone builds before our very eyes over the course of the film. She pulls off the trick of demonstrating her growth and eventual maturity in a way that feels natural and unforced, while maintaining her confidence and assuredness even when she dabbles in more mundane adventures, like marriage. (Youssef’s limp Max is understandably passive in the face of Bella’s supreme self-possession.) What some critics might accuse of being performative feminism feels more like respectful admiration for human potential, unencumbered by repression and dismissive of sexism. Bella is Bella, and she’s not inviting you to be Bella, but rather to let you be you.

So rich is Bella’s story that many of the picture’s strangest elements almost fall by the wayside. She is surrounded by similarly unnatural mashup creatures that presage the finale, such as dog heads on chicken bodies. Dafoe’s whole appearance is the product of a makeup artist run amok, with his patchwork face and deeply dysfunctional digestive system. And newcomer composer Jerskin Fendrix’s score is better described as a soundscape, with portions of the orchestra firing off like random neurons until it coalesces into something quixotic but finally harmonious. (The score is showcased in the film’s trailer; nothing else could possibly fit.) Poor Things is an odd story, made beautiful because it is adorned with strangeness.

In retrospect, Lanthimos has been building up to a film like this, and he doesn’t squander the opportunity by holding back or playing it safe. In films like Dogtooth, The Lobster, and The Favourite, he has been exploring power in relationships, but often from the point of view of low-status characters, people who are denied their agency. With Bella Baxter, he has found a hero who is determined to claim power for herself. She brings out the best in Lanthimos, and he gives her a thrilling presentation. Poor Things is an answer to the question “Why?” The answer is definitive.


“I’ve heard a few people say that, based on the trailer, Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest film, Poor Things, looks too weird for their tastes. To be honest, the trailer made me think this ‘gender-bending Frankenstein’, as it’s being sold, looked too weird for my tastes… It is weird, no doubt. But it is the sort of weird we can do. And not so weird that I had to Google it afterwards.”–Deborah Ross, The Spectator (contemporaneous)

“…wildly unique, disquieting and consistently hilarious. It’s one of the best films of the year. It just happens to also be one of the weirdest.”–D. Patrick Rodgers, Nashville Scene (contemporaneous)


Poor Things – Searchlight Pictures – Includes numerous stills, two film clips, an extended trailer, and the short promo “Who Is Bella Baxter?”

IMDB LINK: Poor Things (2023)


Jacobin: Poor Things Is a Sharp Satire About the Tyranny of Property – Ewan Gibbs and Calum Barnes compare the themes of the film with its literary ancestor, and discuss the universal relevance of the story’s take on capitalism and ungoverned technology

The Independent: Poor Things understands that nothing scares men more than a sexually liberated woman – Xan Brooks argues that the movie is as much about male insecurity as it is about female empowerment

Interview: Condom Coats and Courrèges: Emma Stone Gets the Story Behind Her Favorite Poor Things Looks – Stone chats with costume designer Holly Waddington about the inspirations for Bella’s extraordinary attire

Los Angeles Times: ‘Poor Things’ composer Jerskin Fendrix finds there are no lines to cross for this score – First-time composer Fendrix describes the making of what the newspaper calls “arguably the strangest film score of the year”

Architectural Digest: Inside the Surreal Universe of Poor Things – Production designers James Price and Shona Heath go behind-the-scenes with their immense sets and carefully chosen set decoration

“Gives Us A Moment” Episode 7: Poor Things – 366 scribe Giles Edwards and Caleb Johnston discuss the film for 90 minutes on the podcast “Give Us a Moment”

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: POOR THINGS (2023) – Gregory J. Smalley’s original Apocrypha Candidate review

HOME VIDEO INFO: Searchlight Pictures released a Blu-ray of Poor Things (buy) just a few days after the film celebrated its five Oscar wins. This being a Hollywood prestige product, audio and visual quality are, naturally, pristine; we wouldn’t be shocked to see this version surpassed by a 4K UHD release down the line, however. The only extras are the 21-minute featurette “Possessing Beauty – The Making of Poor Things” and 3 minutes of deleted scenes (as well as a code for a digital version). Poor Things is also available on DVD (buy), but without the special features. The movie is also available for digital purchase (buy).

At the time of this writing, Poor Things was streaming on Hulu (subscription required).

Where to watch Poor Things

10 thoughts on “44*. POOR THINGS (2023)”

    1. Has that film been suggested by readers?

      It could well be a qualifier for the Apocrypha, in my view.

    2. Consider this me recommending it, if no one else has yet. Radley definitely brought the weird to soft-core.

    3. I copy that. I’ll take a peek at “Lickerish Quartet”.

      Getting back to “Poor Things”, I feel it deserves kudos for its fun-time take on sexuality, particularly the diversity in its inclusions: Ruffalo as a corseted lothario; the crab-walk brothel client; and steadily pro-woman outlook all made for delightful romp through its family-focused mad science and Andersonian visual confectionary.

  1. Yeah, I always need more Radley Metzger references. Glad to see Poor Things certified apocryphally weird, fresh off Beau is Afraid stealing its lunch for weirdest film.

  2. Alaisdar Gray is regarded as one of the great 20th-century Scots writers but isn’t well-known in America. Fortunately, thanks to the movie, Poor Things is now back in print in the States . The movie hews close to the original story but with some interesting deviations, and Gray’s writing is wonderful.

  3. @Shane! I’m just posting to say I love your reviews, you have a great way of describing the flavor of a flick and still tastefully seasoning it with wit. I like your work with the Completists, too, definitely another take on taming the monsters of media.

    @Greg “Lickerish Quartet” is it? I’ll hunt that down and stick it in the review queue. OMG the trailer namechecks Andy Warhol!!!

    @Giles – Did anybody ever tell you you’re the Gilesest Giles that ever Giled? And thanks from the lowly blog community for being the backbone of the podcast!

    1. On second thought, Lickerish Quartet is better suited to a written review. Too racy for video clips without heavy censoring (at least up to the 7 min mark).

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